JRPG Song Forms

I love classic Japanese console RPG soundtracks like Final Fantasy VII and Secret of Mana. The idea of writing in that style appeals to me. But one thing that saps my confidence is when I struggle to find a section to follow a fragment I’ve already written. I tend to grab at the first possibility, even when the connection is weak or forced.

It would be great to have a general idea of how sections are shaped and connected in these songs.

So today I’ve analysed ten of my fave tracks by Noboe Umatsue (Final Fantasy VII) and Hiroki Kikuta (Secret of Mana 2, Seiken Densetsu 3). I wanted to know:

  • How long are the songs and sections?
  • What elements are repeated, and how many times?
  • What textural and harmonic progressions connect sections?

I ended up with this giant chart (which you can see in full size here):


Let me try explain this crazy chart. As you can see, I laid out a timeline for each song, boiling down everything in it to the following abstract categories:

  • beats & riffs – 1-4 bars long:
    Sometimes riffs change their note content to match a chord progression. But I still view it as the same riff. E.g., the synth arpeggio in ‘Prelude’.
  • phrases – the units of melody, 2-6 bars long:
    Of course, the judgement of phrase length can be arbitrary. I just decided these cases intuitively, trying to avoid fussiness. So, my chart doesn’t show every little motif.
  • sections – the large-scale divisions

If you’re familiar with sequencer software, you’ll recognise where I got the idea for all this. It’s how these tracks would look in a sequencer’s “Arrange” window: horizontal lanes containing MIDI clips: short, repeated grooves and beats, and longer melodic or chordal themes.

However, I’m not representing every instrument. I use the “Ostinato” lane for any repeating figure or combination of repeating figures, and anything that I deem to be a melody or theme (whether single note, harmonised, counterpoint or chordal) goes in the “Phrases” lane.

I’ve done the jazz musician thing and reduced the harmony to chord symbols. I don’t condone this in general. It’s just to sketch out what’s going on for skimming purposes. And while I’m confessing sins, I also used mode names to describe chords. In a past post I complained about overuse of modes as an explanatory device. However, I think modes are the best explanation for aspects of Hiroki Kikuta’s music.

Let’s analyse!

Now, these are game soundtracks and the structure is first and foremost determined by having to loop indefinitely. Every one of these tunes has a section, the loop, that will cycle for as long as your game character stays in that location or game state (e.g. the battle screen). Four of the songs also have a preceding section that I call the intro.

The looping is part of the aesthetic, providing a hypnotic dreaminess, a melancholy, an escapism into something both boundless and yet safely predictable.

Obviously, looped music needs both variety and smoothness if it’s to avoid annoying the listener.

I never completed Final Fantasy VII (or even played either Secret of Mana or Seiken Densetsu 3) but I remember songs getting annoying when you had to redo a task too many times, like the Chocobo race. Or even the battle music, sometimes it’s the last thing you want.

Entrances and starts of sections are almost all square and on the beat. Melodic pickups are used for sure, and drum fills, but there’s never a sensation of skipping the downbeat or disturbing the start of a section. The music, after all, shouldn’t demand too much attention. It should provide drama and atmosphere, and depth for repeated listening, without snagging the ear. This doesn’t prohibit dissonance, strange sounds or unusual time signatures. But they must be safely contained in comfortable box-like structures.

Changes in instrumentation or texture are obviously important to provide diversity within the short loops. I tried to depict the instrumentation changes in the following chart:

4 songs have a (purple) intro section. Each cell of text stands for a musical texture. So, ‘Prelude’ has two textures, synth for the intro, and synth, strings & woodwinds for the loop. ‘Tifa’s Theme’ has no intro, but 5 distinct textures (instrument combinations).

Full size version here.

Again, I’m not happy with this chart. The bars look like a bar chart, but although I am depicting the song structures chronologically from left to right, longer bars don’t represent longer time periods: instead, they represent songs that have more instrumentation changes.

That’s confusing and I’d like to improve on this in future.

Generally there’s a lot of keyboards, woodwinds, strings, mallets. Bit of voice, reed instruments, plucked strings. And a leaning towards kitsch things like barrel organ, accordion, music box.

The orchestration is not dense. I counted at most five different instruments at any time. This has to do with available tech, of course. These tracks are in a sample-based format, similar to tracker music, with (I’m guessing) 8 or 16 simultaneous samples permitted at once.

I presume the instruments were sampled from Yamaha digital synths. It can be hard to tell if something is meant to sound “like a synth”, or like a synthesised version of something real. That kind of stuff gives a lot of the aura of these soundtracks. I’ve spoken about it a bit before.

All right, let’s get onto the structures!

About half of the tunes have a loop length below a minute, while half have a length from 1:30 to 2:30. If you are composing in this idiom, you’ll be writing stuff shorter than a short pop song. Maybe that’s part of the appeal: a bijou version of generally long-winded genres like classical, prog rock and fusion.

‘Prelude’, ‘Tifa’s Theme’, and ‘Fond Memories’ (Uematsu) and ‘Still of the Night’, ‘A Curious Happening’ and ‘Raven’ (Kikuta): all these have a roughly ternary form for the loop. Kikuta in particular uses an AAB form with no variation between the As, a couple of of times.

‘Few Paths Forbidden’ (Kikuta) and ‘Anxious Hearts’ (Uematsu) have four equal sections in the loop. ‘Sending A Dream’ into the Universe (Uematsu) has only two but the theme’s phrase form is compensatorily more complex. ‘Now Flightless Wings’ (Kikuta) is a special case which I’ll discuss later.

Five of the tunes use repetitions with variation. Strategies for variation are all very familiar:

  • add (or remove) a countermelody, as in ‘Prelude’ and the second part of ‘Now Flightless Wings’
  • octave shifts, that old classic
  • change instrumentation, like flute to oboe in ‘Tifa’s Theme’

Most of the tunes centre around a continuous chunk of thematic melody of around 30-50 seconds’ length. It depends on the tempo, but often that’s 16 bars long. Perhaps because I chose a lot of melancholy and pensive and nostalgic pieces, many of these tracks have a similar moderate 4/4 tempo. Both games feature some 3/4 or 6/8, but less than I expected.

8 out of the 10 tunes have an ostinato of some kind, so that’s definitely a technique to reach for. Of those 8, 6 of those have it basically throughout.

Finally, let’s mention rests and breaks. All of the songs except for ‘Still of the Night’ and ‘Tifa’s Theme’ and the tiny loop of ‘Now Flightless Wings’, feature a tag or a breakdown to rhythmic hits. This provides a relief from the main melody, within the loop. ‘Raven’ has two different rhythmic breakdown sections.

‘Tifa’s Theme’, ‘Few Paths Forbidden’, ‘Now Flightless Wings’, ‘Anxious Heart’ and ‘Sending a Dream into the Universe’ (all lyrical, emotive ones!) feature prolongations of melody endings by a bar or two, either of a V chord or a I. Nothing too surprising, but another little technique for the toolbox.

In the end, I think I’ve reached the limitations of this kind of analysis. I could try eke out some conclusions about the phrase divisions of these melodies, but we’d learn more by transcribing a couple and talking about them as, you know, melodies.

Okay, time to wrap up with individual comments on each tune.

I apologise for presenting the tunes in no sensible ordering. It’s because I (rashly) chose LibreOffice Calc to lay out my data. Putting the tunes in a sensible ordering would involve too much layout hacking to be worth it.

I gotta say, I haven’t been too impressed with Calc. I encountered a fair few tiny glitches and the export functions are unfinished: I couldn’t find a way to choose what page or what cells to export to image, and the pagination options in the PDF export appear to do nothing.

Anyway. Now comes the fun part!

‘Prelude’ (C major) – Noboe Uematsu, Final Fantasy VII

This is the first thing you hear when you start the game. Confidently, for 16 bars it features only solo synth arpeggios that climb and fall through 4 octaves with a calm wave-like effect. The synth is warm and woody in its lower registers and chime-like at the very top. An echo effect adds magic dust. The triads are decorated with 9s and, at the end, 7s, providing a bit of extra colour.

Harmonically, it’s a four-chord trick until the parallel minor chords – all familiar but powerful stuff. The mood is mystical but noble. After that full round of synth, a majestic theme, with full chords, in strings and woodwinds, begins.

One smart detail is the order of the theme variants: first a version with ascending countermelodies in the accompaniment, then a plainer version without countermelodies, providing some easing and rest.

‘Still Of the Night’ (A minor) – Hiroki Kikuta, Secret of Mana

This isn’t a million miles away from the hypnotic, chimey, magical mood of Prelude, yet Kikuta’s style is distinctive. It’s more mysterious and warmer, cheekier. This stems from a static dorian modality, alternating with major chords off flattened degrees like bII, bVI and even bI. That sense of mystery comes from the ambiguous voicings (there isn’t a clear bass note) and tensions created by the shifting, slow ostinato against a droning tonic note.

This particular tune is very open in texture though we’ll see him do busier stuff elsewhere. Sonically, we’re in chimy, dreamy land again, but Kikuta’s sounds are warmer. He famously crafted the samples himself rather than leaving it to an engineer, and the result is gorgeous.

‘Tifa’s theme’ – Noboe Uematsu, Final Fantasy VII

Wow, this is such a catchy theme, I’ve had it in my head all day. Like Prelude, it’s in a major key with some colourful chords from the parallel minor. Also like Prelude, the progression is basic and powerful. Legato orchestral sounds plus a near-constant vibes arpeggio combine in a mood I’d call soulful.

The strings are done in a bit of a hurry, I think, but we get some contrary motion from variations in the vibes. There’s some not-particularly-subtle symbolism in the melody textures, that nonetheless drew a tear from me, about how Tifa wants a man to love and a return to the happiness she had with her childhood friend Cloud: flute and oboe together, then flute alone, then oboe an octave lower with flute finally rejoining.

The loop back to the start harmonically goes to I from a II, although the melody does strongly lean on the V note. It’s as if the theoretically necessary, bridging V7 chord is only briefly hinted at.

‘Few Paths Forbidden’ – Hiroki Kikuta, Seiken Densetsu 3

What a groover! This one has an awesome syncopated drums and bass guitar groove, a warm hooting synth harmonised melody, with wheeling syncopated marimba riffage in the background.

We’re getting into Kikuta’s secret sauce here: notice how the marimba has a quiet lower harmony line which subtly contributes some pulsing bass activity alongside the expertly sparse bass guitar throbs. The slapback echo adds texture and emphasises the woody quality while pleasantly obscuring that lower line – just another example of Kikuta’s gorgeous (yet economical) sonic layering – pleasant depth like a bed of bracken.

The slightly out of tune mallet sound adds vibe and realism.

The pumping bass uses the slab-like weight of bass guitar as a powerful device in itself. This is a composer who gets it.

‘Now Flightless Wings’ (Ab major) – Hiroki Kikuta, Secret of Mana

This one’s a special case. From reading the Youtube comments, I glean that it’s the last song heard in the game and it’s there to deliver an emotional payoff at the story’s end. Tense strings chords get harmonically warmer, into a gorgeous glowing barrel organ and music box infinite loop. So, I haven’t played the game but even so the bittersweet life-is-sad loveliness is pretty affecting. I’d tentatively suggest that looping here is used aesthetically. The extreme shortness and simplicity of the loop makes it like a lullaby, childish, vulnerable and ephemeral. That said, some subtle counterpoint and harmonic variations bring depth and ornamentation so it’s not too plain. Brilliant stuff.

‘Anxious Heart’ (F minor) – Noboe Uematsu, Final Fantasy VII

This one starts with cinematic string swells. The harmony is tenser than in the other Uematsu pieces we’ve seen: minor to parallel major shifts with roots moving in thirds, featuring that awe-inspiring shift from a major to a minor 3rd degree. A lot of emotional payoffs in music happen on these type of big, simple colour shifts. So good!

Then it goes into what I think of as “rainforest” vibraphone, after this amazing Jay Hoggard exotica track that I’ve always loved.

The intro is in 5/4, I think, just to lengthen out the chords.

‘A Curious Happening’ (C minor) – Hiroki Kikuta, Secret of Mana

Swung sixteenths sleazy freaky noir funk. There’s probably something that could be said here about Japan’s relationship to African-American culture, but I amn’t informed enough to grasp it.

This track has very funky timbres. Both the synth and the xylophone in the intro vamp are primarily sonic/timbral. Although they’re outlining a Im6 to I-7b5 jazzy chord alternation, what we’re most aware of is the warm, nearly buzzing fatness from the synth, and dry niggling woody oddness from the percussion. Both are staccato sounds, putting that African emphasis (speaking very, very, very broadly) on note onset (and hence rhythmic expression) over the continuous pure tones of classical music.

In this context, the simple clave rhythm for the breakdown was the perfect choice.

‘Sending a Dream into the Universe’ (C minor) – Noboe Uematsu, Final Fantasy VII

This one has, I dunno, maybe “Celtic New Age” instrumentation? Keening woodwind, acoustic accompaniment, slow rock drums and synth pads.

There’s a cool programmatic sequence in the harmony. Three times, we change to a minor key a fifth above, via a pivot chord sitting a third away from each key. E.g. Cm Eb Gm. Then Gm Bb Dm. The effect is simultaneously uplifting and sad. Doing it three times in a row emphasises the theme of the title, with a feeling of hopefully, nobly surging upwards. Nice work, Uematsu-san.

‘Fond Memories’ (C major) – Hiroki Kikuta, Secret of Mana

It’s little wonder people get nostalgic about these games… they were made with a clear-eyed understanding of the mechanics and value of nostalgia! This sparkling gauze of single-note piano and faint accordion, with its shimmering delay effect, just gets right down to the business of plucking your heartstrings. Nice balance between the 4-bar major part and the 16-bar minor part. The harmony is triadic, diatonic then relative minor and finally just a bit of parallel minor in the form of a bVII to get us to a colourful and rather inexplicable, but definitely good VI7 chord before going back to the tonic.

‘Raven’ (A minor) – Hiroki Kikuta, Seiken Densetsu 3

This one’s a pure groove/riff tune. A foot tapper! Like in ‘Few Paths Forbidden’, Kikuta does his dorian two-part harmonising thing in the marimba, and also in the woodwinds. This tune just stays on one chord though, with a stomping rhythmic breakdown followed by an ominous, pulsing, pizz strings and flute tag, for variation.

Thanks so much for joining me. Hope these classic JRPG songs warmed your heart! And I hope I put these lessons to use some day soon myself!

P.S. Here’s a playlist of all the tracks I analysed, here’s the full Secret of Mana OST, here’s Seiken Densetsu 3, and here’s Final Fantasy VII.